The God of Small Things
Arundhati Roy makes an impressive debut in her first novel, The God of Small Things, which traces the decline of a South Indian family. In the late 1990’s a novel with an Indian setting hardly seems foreign to Western readers after the wide reception of books by Salman Rushdie, Anita Desai, Shashi Tharoor, and numerous other Indian novelists. While Roy may not have surpassed her fellow writers, she has invented a narrative that is strikingly original in its indirectness, distinctive in its handling of colorful and exotic details, and rich with sketchily drawn but memorable characters. Even though Roy’s determined inventiveness falters at times, the accomplishments outshine the imperfections.
The novel, which dwells on the cruelty of separation, opens with a reunion of the twins, Rahel and Estha, the youngest members of a ruined South Indian family. The Ipes, who are anglicized, Syrian Christians, once held a prominent position in the village of Ayemenem, located in the tropical splendor of India’s southernmost state, Kerala. Yet when Rahel and Estha, now in their thirties, meet in the family home for the first time since childhood, they find the once-grand house neglected and grimy, its formerly well-tended grounds a tangle of growth—“Filth had laid siege to the Ayemenem House like a medieval army advancing on an enemy castle.” Rahel had, in the intervening years, married, moved to the United States, divorced her husband, and returned to India. When she hears that her brother Estha has come back to the ancestral home, she rushes to meet him. The psychological states of the brooding brother and unpredictable sister resemble the desolate house where they meet after their long separation.
Yet their reunion, taking place in the present, does not provide the plot with its impetus. Rather, the past defines and formulates the immediate. Those events from that murky past are gradually made known through a series of indirect revelations that the author tortures into telling. The family’s decline, already on its way, moved into full speed during the Christmas season of 1969, when the young twins’ cousin, Sophie Mol, and her British mother, their uncle Chacko’s former wife, arrived from England for a holiday. With the narrative moving backward, then forward, then reversing itself and taking an unexpected turn, then falling into repetition, the reader learns of Sophie Mol’s drowning, the twins’ possible responsibility for their cousin’s death, their mother’s disgrace and banishment, the social structure that leads to the mistreatment of the untouchable class, the forced parting of the twins, the dwindling family fortune, and the disintegrating relationships. Finally, each character suffers separation from family, from love, from security, and from the larger world. This painful tearing apart comes about by chance events and by small things over which they appear to have no control: “It’s true. Things can change in a day,” the narrator observes.
Because most of the Indian novels that have been published in the West are set in northern India, that area has become somewhat familiar. So The God of Small Things is distinctive not only in its method of narration but in its South Indian setting as well. Roy has managed to integrate into the plot the rare atmosphere of Kerala, beginning with the opening paragraphs:
May in Ayemenem is a hot, brooding month. The days are long and humid. The river shrinks and black crows gorge on bright mangoes in still, dustgreen trees. Red bananas ripen. Jackfruits burst. Dissolute bluebottles hum vacuously in the fruity air. Then they stun themselves against clear windowpanes and die, fatly baffled in the sun.
The nights are clear, but suffused with sloth and sullen expectation.
Such intense description enlivens the text throughout and creates a heady atmosphere abundant in color and smells, sounds and sights. Yet Roy avoids invoking the exotic merely for its own sake but skillfully makes this rare place at least partially responsible for its inhabitants’ behavior and misfortunes.
Allusions to other literary works and popular culture, mostly of Western origin, fill the text. References extend from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925) to Elvis Presley to Batman comics to popular American television shows. All of this suggests how an anglicized family like the Ipes have one foot in the West, the other in traditional Indian culture. In fact, this conflict may partially account for their downfall. Certainly their attitudes toward and treatment of the untouchable class, supposedly outlawed in modern India, stems from centuries of prejudice, and no Western ways will change such...
(The entire section is 1937 words.)